As Kendal’s Freemasons celebrate their 250th anniversary, reporter RACHEL KITCHEN visited the Masonic Lodge to look behind the myths and discover how this ancient and once secret brotherhood is moving into the 21st century
FACEBOOK pages and Twitter feeds today find their place among the ancient rituals and regalia of Freemasonry.
The movement is embracing a new spirit of openness, say its brethren – who are keen to dispel any myths and misconceptions about the historic organisation.
Kendal’s Union Lodge – housed in the old St George’s School – is one of 80 lodges with around 3,000 members in the ‘province’ of Cumberland and Westmorland, where Masons meet regularly to learn kindness and toler-ance through the acting-out of traditional plays.
The moralistic dramas are rich in symbolism, with white aprons, gauntlets, special handshakes, rolled-up trouser legs and stonemasons’ tools playing their part.
Learned by heart, they help the Masons to grow in self-esteem as they progress through the levels of entered apprentice, fellow craft and master mason to reach the senior ranks.
“There’s nothing to hide,” said Peter Clark, provincial communications officer.
“The organisation has changed unbelievably in the past 20 years. We are now far more open.
“We are accused of being a secret society but we can hardly be when we’ve got websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook and magazines. We are a modern organisation moving into the 21st century.”
Keith Young, who owns Grosvenor House Papers in Kendal, is deputy provincial grand master and told the Gazette that people from all walks of life and different religions applied to join the Masons – often online.
Twenty-one is usually the youngest, but people can join at 18 with the grand master’s consent. There are lodges for women Masons, too, including Morecambe and Gretna (they also call each other ‘brother’).
“We have a number of farmers in this county, as you would expect,” said Mr Young. “but there are tradesmen, builders, profes-sional people, teachers and clergy. The list goes on.”
Mr Young stressed that the Masons met as friends to enjoy a hobby, not to promote their businesses or careers, and were encouraged to be open about membership.
“There are some people who join for the wrong reasons. They may think there’s some kind of gain to be got out of Freemasonry, but they soon find out it doesn’t matter what anybody does.”
New brothers wear a simple white apron over a dark suit or morning dress, symbolising the protective work clothes worn by medieval stonemasons. Moving up the ranks, aprons and gauntlets become increasingly elaborate, with rich embroidery, braiding and rosettes.
Several different Masonic handshakes are used in lodge rituals, said Mr Young, a nod to the ancient forms of recognition used among medieval stonemasons, who guarded their craft closely.
As for the rolled-up trouser leg, it is a sign of being a free man, without shackles.
Mr Clark, a contract manager for post-16 education, said: “People think we do all sorts of daft things but what you gain from Freemasonry is confidence. It does wonders for self-esteem – you go out two feet higher than when you came in.”
The Masons’ charitable giving makes them second only to the National Lottery in the UK, with donations of around £30 million to good causes and disaster funds each year.
Closer to home, recent grants have included £8,500 to Sandgate hydrotherapy pool and £2,500 to Kendal Mountain Rescue.
Meetings at Kendal’s lodge always end with an informal dinner – the dining room is also the local WI office – to which wives and partners are welcome. The Masonic Hall itself is rich in symbolism, with its square-and-compasses door knocker and its wooden pedestals with columns depicting wisdom, strength and beauty.
Explaining the meaning of the black-and-white chequered carpet, Mr Young said: “When you join Free-masonry you’re taken from darkness to light. We say it makes good men better.”
To find out more, visit www.ugle.org.uk and www. cumbriafreemasons.org.